What are the legal issues and problems involved with using social networking sites at work?

Social networking sites

Over the last few years there has been a steady increase in the use of social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter and Bebo. The vast majority of people have their own account on one of these sites with Facebook the most popular – it is becoming increasingly difficult to find an individual who does not have a profile on this particular site.

The use of social networking sites at work

Many individuals who work in offices and have continual access to the internet will use social networking sites at work. Often this is due to not having an internet connection at home and also the fact that most of their friends will also have access at work providing the ideal opportunity to use certain functions such as the instant chat function. As a consequence of this there are many potential issues faced by employers, which are as follows:

  • Decline in workplace productivity

  • IT Issues

  • Issues with confidentiality

  • Potential issues with fraud

  • Health and safety issues

  • Issues when an employee could be seen to be bringing the company into disrepute

  • Discrimination issues

Decline in workplace productivity

One of the biggest concerns for employers is that the increased use of these sites by their employees is distracting them from their work and therefore decreasing the productivity of the business. Often employees are potentially distracted immediately when arriving at work or arriving back after a break with the potential for social networking at these times increasing the potential for distraction.

IT Issues

Use of social networking sites could lead to serious IT issues with the potential for systems being corrupted and increasing the possibility of viruses being introduced to the work network. Furthermore, if the company uses specific web based system during the operation of their work the use of other staff on social networking sites could have an adverse affect on how quickly these important systems will operate.

Is there anything which I can do to stop this?

The easiest way for an employee to stop this is to introduce strict policies on when certain sites can be used. Some employers feel that a total ban is the necessary course of action whereas some feel that allowing access for a couple of hours over lunchtime is the best option. There are however, potential issues that can be faced with introducing such a policy. For example if a total ban is put in place this may have an adverse affect on employee morale. If a partial ban is put in place this may result in a complete standstill in productivity during the two hours access is allowed as each employee may wish to maximise their potential time on social networking sites.

Issues with confidentiality

If an individual employee uses the site in careless manner by accidentally disclosing their employer’s confidential information and trade secrets this could be seen as a beach of the employee’s duty of confidentiality to their employer.

Potential Issues with fraud

If an individual’s profile page contains certain information about the company which they work for this opens up the potential for that company information to be obtained by others and used to commit fraud.

Is there any way which I can prevent this happening?

Disciplinary action may be possible in relation to the breach of an employee’s duty of confidentiality to their employer but may be heavy handed in relation to the company information on a profile opening up the potential for fraud. In the second situation again an employer should introduce a policy document which specifies the type of company information which can be displayed on social networking sites.

Health and Safety Issues

On certain social networking sites individual’s can post videos of themselves which has caused the potential issue of employee’s posting videos of themselves at work doing certain things which may have resulted in a breach of health and safety.

What should an employer do if they believe this to be the case?

If an employer believes this to be the case then they should fully investigate the issue and take appropriate action if they believe that a health and safety breach has in fact occurred.

If an employer becomes aware of these practices of their employee’s and does nothing about it when the subsequent undertaking of these health and safety breaches causes an accident to an employee, the employer could be found to be negligent.

Bringing the company into disrepute

Often many employees will write blogs or publish online content which in some cases may involve disparaging comments about their employers. In this case their employer may feel that the content of the blog brings the company into disrepute. However, this is a difficult area for an employer to tread as if the employee is not making specific mention of their employers and is simply talking about their working life in general terms.

Whether an employee has brought the company into disrepute following statements made on their blog will clearly vary on a case by case basis depending on the particular facts of each case. However, employers should bear in mind that to be successful in a claim such as this they will need to at the minimum show that the acts amounted to misconduct sufficiently serious to justify summary dismissal.

Discrimination issues

Often videos and comments posted on various social networking sites by employees may involve the naming of other employees in a bad way. In certain circumstances this could amount to discrimination or could also amount to bullying or harassment.

An employer, if made aware of this, should be prepared to act as this could potentially cause that employer to be vicariously liable for the conduct of that particular employee.

Again an employer should execute a full policy document explain fully what may constitute bullying, harassment or discrimination and should be prepared to discipline employees in line with the policy.

As an employer should I look at potential employees’ social networking pages?

On certain social networking sites such as Facebook, if you are a member of the same network as an individual you can obtain access to their Facebook page and all the activity contained therein. As a consequence of this many employers are looking at potential employee’s profile pages as a way to find out more details about a potential person as part of the employment process and even to look at the profile pages of existing staff members.

Employers should be wary when doing this, however, as this could potentially be regarded as a misuse of personal data in contravention to the Data Protection Act 1998.